A Letter from Seclusion

The Turnhout Begijnhof, Toerisme Vlaanderen
The Turnhout Begijnhof, from the Toerisme Vlaanderen website

Hello All,

It took me a very long time to get around to writing this post, but I have decided to break my silence. I have been enjoying a different pace of life and adjusting to a very different set of activities and responsibilities, and for some reason this impeded my ability to write for Fluid Imaginings. I have thought of doing so many times, but the time did not seem right. Today I thought that I might write a little about the possibilities and peculiarities of taking oneself away from it all in the ultimate stages of thesis submission.

I have been living very peacefully for the last few weeks in Turnhout, a small city in Flemish Belgium close to the Dutch border. I am interning as a publishing assistant in the English language division of Brepols, a publisher that many medievalists will be familiar with. Brepols is housed within the Begijnhof of Turnhout, a former community for religious women to live together in common piety now converted to a home for retirees and UNESCO world heritage site. My current room is within the building occupied by Corpus Christianorum, creators of Greek and Latin critical editions, and current stewards of a vast library of Latin and Greek texts. My room, and its twin, are named for great monasteries of the medieval Eastern and Western Christian worlds, Subiaco in Italy and Studion in Constantinople.

This is my place of seclusion until September, when I return to Perth and submit my thesis. There are many advantages to this situation: Brepols has a library of its extensive collection of books, I have somewhere quiet to work, the surroundings are peaceful (I can hear birdsong from my window this very minute), and I am learning new skills at the same time in my editing duties.

There is a peace and pervasive air of scholarly life to this place that I have found to be good for me. Many people spend precisely this period in their PhD in comfortable environs close to supervisor, administration, and source material, but I can recommend a sharp break as a good inspiration in stressful times. I would like to stress, however, that there are certain things that one absolutely needs to finish a PhD: support, security, company, and certain resources. I only chose to do this internship because I was confident that I could continue to have these things, with the added benefit of cross-training and an adventure.

As promised, some thoughts on my circumstances. Just before PhD completion, there is a powerful urge to flee, to do something else, to move on. This is somewhat easier to overcome in familiar surroundings, but once you have fled a little to another country, momentum pushes you to flee further, into something else entirely. If you have changed this much, moved contexts this much, then why not go further? I find myself struggling to keep attached to my PhD while simultaneously spreading myself out in new directions. I am invested in and enjoy my research, but have always seen my doctoral studies as a chance to learn more about myself, to build myself, to cultivate myself. How far should one go in this pursuit? Does the ultimate end of such a process during PhD, especially in  these uncertain times, grow one out of desiring a doctorate?

Yes, and no. Yes, because the person I want to be, the professional I want to be, the academic I want to be and the doctor I want to be are all different now to when I started. I have said in a previous post that we in the Humanities are pluripotent in our uselessness, and I feel that opportunities like this internship continue to grow my possible, latent ability to make a mark on the world, to be something, to do something that I am proud of. No, because I can imagine so much more than I once could. If one ‘goes rogue’ close to submission, then it forces self-reflection about that it is that causes you to do what you do. Inertia will not carry you to submission if you break it. If you continue to redefine your context, then you must continue to re-justify your life choices to yourself.

I feel that this experience will temper me in my conviction about everything I have done thus far, or force me to reassess my desire to do certain things. Absence from the lull of campus life makes one think very carefully about what it is to be a PhD student, what it is that a PhD student does, and what comes next. I will continue to write on this topic as time passes, probably in a stream of consciousness like this one.

Until then, Be Well.



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